Easter 2020 ~ In Between Resurrection
Joshua 3: 1-6
This short passage forms a bridge between two important chapters in the life of the Jewish people. Before this passage they have spent 40 years wandering in the wilderness. After this passage they will enter the Promised Land to begin a new life there. But for now they are camped by the Jordan River, waiting.
Early in the morning Joshua rose and set out from Shittim with all the Israelites, and they came to the Jordan. They camped there before crossing over. At the end of three days the officers went through the camp 3 and commanded the people, “When you see the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God being carried by the levitical priests, then you shall set out from your place. Follow it, 4 so that you may know the way you should go, for you have not passed this way before. Yet there shall be a space between you and it, a distance of about two thousand cubits; do not come any nearer to it.”
5 Then Joshua said to the people, “Sanctify yourselves; for tomorrow the Lord will do wonders among you.” 6 To the priests Joshua said, “Take up the ark of the covenant, and pass on in front of the people.” So they took up the ark of the covenant and went in front of the people.
Mark's gospel is known for being short and to the point. His version of the Easter story is no exception. Listen closely for the details that are included, and equally important, those details that are not included.
When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. 2 And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. 3 They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” 4 When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back.
5 As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. 6 But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. 7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”
8 So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
As a minister, Easter is one of those services where we tend to use the same elements year after year. Most of us use the gospel of John because it's the best story, with its wonderful descriptions and details. We tend to use the same hymns year after year because everyone has their favorites and it just isn't Easter if we don't sing Jesus Christ is Risen Today. For my part, I always love to start the service with “Christ is risen! He is risen indeed.”
But of course this year everything is different. I'm here at church, you are at home. There's no choir, no daffodils, no hugs as we greet one another, no singing of numerous Easter hymns as we put 200 daffodils in our cross. So I felt I needed to acknowledge that difference even in the choice of scripture readings. You may have noticed that the passages Wayne read are not the usual Easter readings. Mark is at least a gospel story of Easter, even if it's rarely used,
but you may be thinking, Joshua?? Why did she pick a reading from Joshua?
Well, I picked the passage from Joshua because I think it has similarities to the gospel reading and to where we are at today. The Jewish people, known then as the Hebrews, had just spent 40 years in the wilderness, waiting to enter the Promised Land. Now they camp beside the River Jordan, but have to wait three days before instructions come on how and when they will enter.
At the end of three days, their leaders go through the camp and tell people what will happen. It's all new for them, totally new ground, literally. They spent 400 years as slaves, then forty wandering in the wilderness, now they're about to conquer a new land, become a true nation. They have nothing in their cultural or personal background to prepare them for this.
That's why their leaders tell them to follow the ark of the covenant, that physical symbol of the spiritual presence of God among them. “Follow the ark of the covenant so that you may know the way you should go, for you have not passed this way before.”
That's like us right now, it's all new ground, we've never experienced an epidemic this large before or a situation of needing to isolate ourselves. None of our usual resources, not our explosive knowledge, Google, research abilities, money, a vibrant economy -- none of it can give us a clear answer on how to deal with this or tell us what's going to happen. We have not passed this way before.
As for the Easter story in Mark, well, it's definitely the Cinderella of the gospel resurrection stories, it hardly ever gets used. You may have noticed that it's very short. The women go to the tomb, the stone has been rolled away, a young man (angel?) tells them Jesus has been raised. The women flee from the tomb in terror and amazement and don't say anything to anyone. End of story.
No wonder it isn't used on Easter very often. Who wants an Easter story that ends with terror and fear? Where are the angels? For that matter, where's Jesus? But for this year where life is so stripped down to basics, it seemed appropriate to use Mark, with its stripped down story.
Mark is the oldest of the gospels, it was written around 70AD, so ten years before Matthew and Luke, at least 20 before John. Not only is the author's style simpler, but there has been less time to add on to the story. Because let's face it, it's human nature to embellish stories as time goes on. I see that with my husband Chris. We've been together close to 20 years, and I've noticed that some of his favorite stories from his youth have just gotten better and wilder over the years as he tells and retells them. It was the same with the early Christians.
Not that they were lying, they were just trying to express the feeling of that first Easter and what it meant to them, trying to show others just how amazing this event was. The women didn't just see an angel, they saw Jesus! No wait, they didn't see Jesus that morning, they saw him that evening. Mary Magdalene saw him, no it was Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, no it was two other disciples on the road to Emmaus, wait, it was in Galilee. It's only natural that there were different stories from different people. In addition, each author had their own reasons for choosing the particular details that they put in the story.
Despite all these details, only Mark expresses fully the terror and amazement those women must have felt and only this “shorter” ending stops there. There are two endings to Mark. One that ends here at verse 8, another that goes on with more details, including an appearance of Jesus. Biblical scholars believe that the longer ending was added on later because early Christians didn't like an Easter story that didn't include an appearance by Jesus.
We won't get into that, today is not a time for scholarly debate. For now now I just want to focus on that first ending. Because I believe it reflects where we are today. The story ends with the women having heard the promise that Jesus is risen, but with them terrified and amazed and totally uncertain what to do with this information.
The Hebrews are in a similar place in the story from Joshua – a time of change and uncertainty, also a time of a promise of something that seems impossible and unknown. They're finally going to enter the Promised Land, which must have been just as terrifying as it was wonderful. What did they know about establishing a country? They were a bunch of wandering ex-slaves!
So here we all are, the Hebrews in Joshua, the women in Mark, us today, sitting in these situations where everything is uncertain and totally unknown to us, and none of our usual resources are of much use because everything is so different. We have no idea what is coming next and only vague promises to carry us through.
It can be scary. Does our government have any idea what they're doing? Well, yes and no. Again, this is all new, we can't blame them for being uncertain.
It's actually a good thing they are taking time to figure out the best path, even if it drives us crazy because we just want to know what's going to happen.
All this leaves us at the same place as Hebrews, the same place as women, that place talked about three weeks ago, place called liminal space, in between time, threshold. It's that time where life as you knew it has changed, but you don't know what's coming next, you have no control. It's a scary place, but as we see in the stories of the Hebrews and of the women, it can be a time of great growth in faith, if we don't let ourselves get overwhelmed by fear and uncertainty.
Because eventually the women and other early Christians came to trust the promise of resurrection, to see Jesus, perhaps physically, most definitely spiritually, to sense his presence and his guidance in all that they did. They came to feel themselves transformed by his presence and his love and in turn to feel empowered to transform their world. That's pretty powerful.
And eventually the Hebrews went on to conquer the Promised Land. It's not always a pretty story, especially for our ears today, but to them it was empowering. They established themselves as a nation, trying to live in God's way as God's people, living in God's presence.
In that story, before they enter the Promised Land, Joshua tells the people to sanctify themselves “for tomorrow the Lord will do wonders among you.” I love that image, here they are, terrified, excited, not knowing what to do and Joshua tells them to sanctify themselves, prepare yourselves for the presence of God among you.
I think that is very similar to the idea of liminal space. Could we use this time of physical distance and isolation as a sanctifying time? A time to let go of things that weigh us down, a time to draw closer to God? It will definitely feel like a stretch at times, but is it possible?
All this ties into resurrection. When I read and reread the gospel story, it struck me that resurrection was happening throughout the whole story-- while the women were waiting for the sun to rise, while they were fleeing home, while they waited afterwards trying to understand what had happened. Resurrection was going on that whole time.
And resurrection is going on right now too, even if it doesn't feel that way or look that way to us. We are changing and our world is changing. It's up to us whether or not these changes lead to resurrection in our lives and in our world. If we use this time of isolation to stay home and complain, no, there won't be any resurrection.